adventures in the people's republic of china and beyond

Saturday, December 01, 2007



Ah, Kahsgar!

After several days of travel, we had finally made it all the way from Xi'an to Kashgar, a historic Silk Road hub and major Uyghur city lying far out in the west, near the border with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. We had arrived early in the morning on the bus from Aksu, so we checked into a cheap room at the Qini Bagh hotel and rested a bit before going out to explore the city.

Our hotel had an interesting open-air layout and used to be the British consulate, during the Great Game.

Walking out into the streets of Kashgar was like entering an entirely different country. Old balconied brick houses rose up on either side of the twisting, narrow streets. Bakers brought out delicious-smelling, freshly baked naan bread and bagels. Older women walked the streets wearing brown cloths draped over their faces, pulling the cloth tight across their face to see ahead. For the first time, I really had the feeling of being in Central Asia. We bought some samsas(kind of like samosas, but really greasy) from a vendor and ate breakfast while strolling around.

Peeling off the streets were tempting alleyways leading into old neighborhoods. We strolled into a couple, getting lost for a while in the maze of twisty alleyways. Children played in front of their houses and danced around shouting "Hello!" when we walked past. One brave boy piped up and asked me in Chinese what my name was.

"我叫王千文,你呢?"(My name's Wang Qianwen, what about you?)
The boy started to answer, then burst into laughter and ran away with his friends.

I loved walking around those old neighborhoods - as a kid I always loved mazes, and I found these neighborhoods absolutely fascinating. The architecture, especially - balconies and parts of buildings jutted out over the alley, supported by wooden beams, and sometimes even bridged over the alley! I could have walked around those neighborhoods forever, really, but we had to see the rest of the city.

We had some trouble orienting ourself - the streets of Kashgar's old town are quite twisty, and not at all like the standard grid pattern of Chinese cities. After some walking about, taking in the street life, we arrived in a large open square. On one side was the Id Kah mosque, which we had been looking for, on the other side, a huge Ihlas supermarket (the Uyghur grocery chain I'd mentioned earlier).

Although it isn't as impressive in apperance as the Kucha mosque, the Id Kah mosque is quite large inside, with a huge courtyard filled with trees and a small fish lake. Although there were mostly tourists inside, there were still a few locals using the mosque for prayers. Interestingly enough, the mosque did not appear gender-segregated - men prayed in the same area as women. We also noticed other foreign tourists around the city - not a whole lot, but definitely more than in other Xinjiang cities, where they are virtually nonexistent (except in Urumqi, maybe).

After seeing the mosque, we went across the square and stepped into a traditional-looking restaurant that had some guys grilling kebabs and making samsas outside. We sat at the same table with some Uyghur guys, who demonstrated to us how to clean your teacup properly - when Uyghurs sit down to drink tea, they normally pour a bit of tea in the cup, swish it around, and empty it into a rubbish pot. I ordered polo for both of us(what I usually get when the menu is entirely in Uyghur), trying out my Uyghur skills, much to the approval of the guys sitting across from us. Reactions of native speakers to foreigners speaking their languages really differs from culture to culture; on an excitement scale of 1-10 with the ambivalent Germans at 1 and the overjoyed Chinese at 10, Uyghurs must be at 11 - speaking a few words of the language definitely goes a long way in Xinjiang!

We walked out from the restaurant, passing a market area and walking down a street through another neighborhood. Suddenly, a man ran up behind me, calling to get my attention. It was the waiter from the restaurant - I had left my bag in there, and he'd run after me with it all this way!

The local ICBC is a popular hangout, for some reason.

We saw plenty more in Kashgar that day, but I'll save it for another post. Until next time!

I learned so much from reading your blog. I am sure it was a great experience for you. Good work son!



Responding to your ask mefi question (I don't have an acct...)--

Although not a linguist, recently I have been doing research on Soviet language policies (from a political standpoint). In addition to the fact that Turkic languages are separate languages, Soviet policies had a "divide and conquer" effect of further separating Turkic languages. As a result, politics had the bizarre effect of actually changing local speech patterns...

Your best bet in many of these areas might be Russian (a similar percentage in many of these nations speak Russian as Europeans speak English). To be honest, I am not sure if there is a stigma attached to Russian language (as in Ukraine)-- but at least you would be intelligible.

If you are set on learning a local, non-Russian language, there are a number of issues to consider:

1) Under the principles of a dialect continuum, a centrally located language (Turkmen maybe) makes the most sense to be intelligible to the most number of people.

2) A colleague told me that the Oghuz branch of the Turkic languages is significantly mutually intelligible. This is like the sort of stories I have heard about Slavic languages -- two retirees, a Pole and a Bulgarian, speaking together in their separate native languages and still understanding 3/4 of the conversation. Incredible.

The Oghuz branch includes some of the larger languages (Turkish, Turkmen, Azerbaijani, etc.) -- making this plan easier.

3) The BEST place to learn central eurasian languages quickly is a summer workshop held at Indiana University:

It is possible to learn a typical "year" of a language in 8 dedicated weeks at the workshop, and the offerings are pretty wide.

But, it is necessary to again point out that a language is generally called a language (and not a dialect) for a reason - significant differences among spoken speech. It will be impossible, no matter what, to have a meaningful conversation with every person you meet from Turkey to China unless you learn dozens of languages.

Best of luck.


David, that was an excellent answer. Thank you!


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